RICHLAND — It would be a more inspiring story. Rocky Duke, realizing a lifelong dream, takes a leap of faith and opens a hunting and fishing outfitting store that in the face of stiff competition and other challenges proves successful. Inspiring, yes, but only half true.
In actuality, Duke had no previous ambition to open a hunting and fishing retail store. He was approached four times with the idea before he finally said “yes” to opening The Outfitter. And, far from a leap of faith, he did a lot of homework and soul searching before making that decision.
However, what makes Duke smile is that The Outfitter has in fact been an unqualified success going from new kid on the block to major player in a few short years despite ever-increasing, major competition and the largest natural disaster in U.S. history.
“I would say, overall, my expectations have been met,” Duke said. “When I look back at my financial projections and plan for business, they’ve all been met. I always want to do more, strive to be better. But, I’m pleased.”
While owning an outfitter store was new to Duke, entrepreneurship was not. Born in Jackson, Duke moved to the Florence-Richland area in the early 1970s. One of things he loved about the area was the opportunities to hunt and fish.
In 1994, Duke opened Compressed Air Technologies Inc. on U.S. 49 in Richland. The business proved successful, and Duke was rocking along when Bill Combs paid him a visit.
Combs tried to convince Duke that he should open a deer-processing business. Duke had dabbled in deer processing previously, so it was not a new idea for him. It didn’t strike him as a winning idea, either, and he declined. Persistent, Combs approached Duke again — again the answer was no. There was a third trip, a third “no” before Duke finally cracked.
“After about the fourth time, I told Billy I would put the numbers together,” Duke remembered. “When I looked at it, I asked myself if I was going to do deer processing, what not open a complete outdoor store? And so, we did.”
The Outfitter opened on U.S. 49, on the same land that Compressed Air is situated on, in August 2002. The Outfitter, which employs approximately eight workers year-round but as many as 30 during the busy hunting season, offers a complete line of hunting and fishing products and services, including deer processing, which is headed up by Combs. Its bread-and-butter business is hunting (98% of the store’s business). Its comprehensive archery and gun services have proven a winner. In fact, Duke gives a lion’s share of the credit for The Outfitter’s success to service in general.
“Our motto is, ‘Enter a customer, leave a friend’,” Duke said. “That’s the key — service. That’s why we have such a loyal customer base.”
That customer base gets a little larger all the time. Duke said The Outfitter, mainly through word-of-mouth, draws customers from as far away as Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama and even Florida. Most of these out-of-state sportsmen are hunting or fishing in Mississippi and need supplies, though Duke said The Outfitter does see its share of visiting drop-ins. Most of the store’s customers come from the area surrounding Richland.
This growth is more impressive considering the environment. The last few years have been marked by significant expansions by metro Jackson-area outfitters. However, the biggest — and least welcome — happening was the coming of the Bass Pro Shop to Pearl, just up the road from Richland. Area outfitters, Duke among them, were not happy when the state offered Bass Pro tourism funds as an incentive to site the store in Mississippi. With its name appeal, excellent location and a huge inventory, Duke and others were concerned that Bass Pro would erode their customer base.
But, a funny thing has happened. Since Bass Pro opened in 2005, The Outfitter’s sales have risen.
“Sales are up about 6%,” Duke said. “I was hoping customers would go look at Bass Pro, shop around, maybe buy something, but would remain loyal, repeat customers to The Outfitter. It would seem that is exactly what has happened.”
Perhaps a bigger challenge was Hurricane Katrina. The metro Jackson area took a hit from Katrina, and folks in Rankin County were without power, sometimes water, too, for days.
Obviously, hunting was not a priority, which hurt because outfitting is such a seasonable business. “Katrina was very difficult,” Duke said. “In this business, you make your money during the busy three-month season. If you don’t, it’s a long nine months until the next busy season.”
Duke said he had an advantage in that he owns Compressed Air. It is not essential that The Outfitter turn big profits. In fact, Duke does not pay himself a salary.
“It’s carrying itself, which is great,” Duke said. “However, the success of this business, the pleasure I get from it, is the vast number of friends I’ve made, to have customers walk out the door and say they had a great experience. That’s rewarding.”
Duke said his future vision for The Outfitter was continued, controlled growth. When asked if he regrets Combs talking him into to opening the store, Duke said with a big laugh, “Somedays, I want to kill him. But, no, I don’t have any regrets.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at email@example.com.